BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jan 9th, 2007 •

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THE ILLUSIONIST takes place in the early 1900’s; a period in time that has always fascinated me with the public’s choices for entertainment. Adults would fill elaborate theaters that were lighted by gaslights and get so emotional from the show that they would yell-out questions, praise or insults to the performers. I was immediately reminded of my own personal favorite from this time, a French vaudevillian who performed under the stage name of Le Petomane. He performed between 1887 and 1917, which is around the time this film takes place. While classic writers who are required reading in present day college were bringing in salaries of four figures, Le Petomane was bringing in a staggering five-figure income from his nightly performances. How did Le Petomane bring in more change than Dickens and Poe put together, you may be wondering? Very easily with controlled and trained flatulence. I could go on and on about this true underrated maverick performer, but this is neither the time, nor the place. I guess I only bring him up because with my twisted mind, I can’t help but wonder… where is HIS movie? Somebody get me producer James Ivory on the phone so I can pitch this valuable film idea. It is, after all, a period piece.

Edward Norton portrays Eisenheim, a brilliant entertainer and master magician. In his youth he fell in love with a beautiful young aristocrat. The girl’s family runs him out of town because of their differences in social structure. Eisenheim masters his talents and relocates to the great city of Vienna. He opens a show at a local theater and it becomes a huge success. Among his fans is Chief Inspector Walter Uhl, (Paul Giamatti) an intelligent detective and a self-proclaimed amateur magician. He enters Eisenheim’s theater to inform him that the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) is planning to visit one of his upcoming performances. On the night of his visit, Eisenheim chooses the Prince’s fiancé as a volunteer for one of his illusions. He is surprised to see that she is his old childhood friend Sophie (Jessica Biel), the only woman he has probably ever loved. The two attempt to rekindle their romance for one another. Unfortunately, the Crown Prince Leopold is not the type of person a woman can just leave. He has way too much power and ego to be treated in such a way. While Inspector Uhl is a great detective and may very well be ahead of his time with his crime investigation techniques, he is slightly corrupt and dedicated to the Crown Prince with promise of a promotion when the Prince becomes King. The Prince insists that Uhl tear Eisenheim apart by proving that he is a fraud, and a thrilling game begins between Eisenheim and Uhl. One trying to convince people that what you are seeing is real and the other trying to disprove everything you are seeing. Two experts at their professions constantly trying to stay one-step ahead of the other.

Director Neil Burger’s film is a unique piece of work for my tastes. It’s one of those films that attempt to pull the carpet out from under you with its surprise ending. The big problem is that the finale is not very unexpected at all. A surprise ending to me should come from out of nowhere and require a second viewing. When a failed attempt at such an ending happens, it usually makes the film as a whole unworthy of your time. However, while I figured out the conclusion, the ending wasn’t disappointing. THE ILLUSIONIST has a ton of things going right for it. The most important two things are the two leading actors, both Yale graduates and both with entirely different acting techniques. I like Edward Norton, but Paul Giamatti is one of the best, and one of my favorite, actors working today. An actor who is not a pretty-boy getting by on looks, he has massive talent and has broken out of the supporting actor role respectably. I mean this as a sincere compliment and he deserves every second of it.

While the majority of THE ILLUSIONIST is excellent fare, I found tiny little scenes staying with me and they made the film highly recommendable. The hallway to Prince Leopold’s office where every square inch is filled with antlers and taxidermy trophies and is filmed with Uhl’s strange reaction. The story of Eisenheim’s chance encounter with a traveling magician while a young boy and the legendary proportions that story has acquired, where the people retelling it can’t distinguish fact from fiction. Chief Inspector Uhl’s harmless, yet undying obsession with Eisenheim’s illusion called The Orange Tree. Eisenheim running into four poor, begging children and instead of just giving them a free hand-out, he performs a little magic show while at the same time making sure the children get to eat, at least for that night. The unmentioned respect Eisenheim and Uhl have for one another. All these small details add up and make the development of these two classic characters a joy to watch.

The cinematography by Dick Pope was nominated for an Academy Award this year and he deserved it. The film has the look of the early 1900’s. The shadowy lighting he employs gives off the feeling you are watching a performance lit with gaslights. He even pulls out the old iris fade in/out trick and conveys filmmaking at its most primitive early stages. The score by Philip Glass is excellent and memorable.

Basically, the whole cast and crew is firing on all cylinders and should be quite proud of their film. The thing is, without the characters of Eisenheim and Uhl or the actors who portrayed them, I’m not so sure I would have enjoyed the film as a whole. I would love to see the character of Chief Inspector Uhl return for another film. Perhaps he could take his debunking talents to France and prove Le Petomane’s flatulence performance is simply the old hand in the armpit gag.


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